The Best Man (1964 film)

The Best Man is a 1964 American political drama film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner with a screenplay by Gore Vidal based on his play of the same title. Starring Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, and Lee Tracy, the film details the seamy political maneuverings behind the nomination of a presidential candidate. The supporting cast features Edie Adams, Margaret Leighton, Ann Sothern, Shelley Berman, Gene Raymond, and Kevin McCarthy.

The Best Man
theatrical poster
Directed byFranklin J. Schaffner
Produced byStuart Millar and
Lawrence Turman
Written byGore Vidal
StarringHenry Fonda
Cliff Robertson
Edie Adams
Margaret Leighton
Shelley Berman
Lee Tracy
Ann Sothern
Music byMort Lindsey
CinematographyHaskell Wexler A.S.C.
Edited byRobert E. Swink
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
April 5, 1964 (US)
Running time
102 minutes
CountryUnited States

Lee Tracy was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, and it was his final film.


In May 1964, former Secretary of State William Russell (Henry Fonda) and Senator Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) are the two leading candidates for the presidential nomination of an unspecified political party. Both have potentially fatal vulnerabilities. Russell is a principled intellectual (said by Vidal to be based on Adlai Stevenson). His sexual indiscretions and lack of attention to her has alienated his wife Alice (Margaret Leighton). In addition, he has a past nervous breakdown to live down. Cantwell (whom Vidal wrote was based on Richard Nixon)[1] portrays himself as a populist "man of the people" and patriotic anti-communist campaigning to end "the missile gap" (a Kennedy campaign catch-phrase). He is a ruthless opportunist, willing to go to any lengths to get the nomination.

Neither man can stand the other; neither believes his rival qualified to be president. At the nominating convention in Los Angeles, they lobby for the crucial support of dying former President Art Hockstader (Tracy). The pragmatic Hockstader (a character based on Harry S. Truman, particularly his comments on "striking a blow for liberty" whenever he drinks a bourbon) prefers Russell, but worries about his indecision and principles; he despises Cantwell for his lack of intellect, but appreciates his toughness and willingness to do whatever it takes.

Hockstader decides to support Cantwell, but the candidate blunders badly. When the two speak privately, Cantwell attacks Russell using illegally obtained psychological reports obtained by Don Cantwell, his brother and campaign manager (clearly based on Bobby Kennedy, who was known as "Ruthless Robert" in political circles during the 1950s and early '60s). Cantwell mistakenly assumed that Hockstader was going to endorse Russell. The former president tells Cantwell that he does not mind a "bastard," but objects to a stupid one. He endorses neither man.

Cantwell's attractive, ambitious wife (Edie Adams) actively campaigns, and Russell's wife pretends that everything is fine with their marriage. The candidates try to sway undecided delegates, Russell appealing to their principles and Cantwell using blackmail. Russell finds out to his chagrin that Hockstader has offered the vice-presidential spot on his ticket to all three of the minor candidates, Senator Oscar Anderson (Richard Arlen), Governor John Merwin (William R. Ebersol), and Governor T.T. Claypoole (John Henry Faulk).

One of Russell's aides finds Sheldon Bascomb (Shelley Berman), who served in the military with Cantwell and is willing to link him to homosexual activity while stationed in Alaska during World War II. Hockstader and Russell's closest advisors press Russell to seize the opportunity, but he refuses to do so.

After the first ballot, Russell arranges to meet Cantwell privately, but when Bascomb is confronted face-to-face by Cantwell, Cantwell refutes his slander. Russell threatens to use the allegation anyway, but Cantwell knows Russell does not have the stomach for such smear tactics. As the rounds of balloting continue, neither man has enough votes to win. Cantwell offers Russell the second spot on his ticket, but Russell shocks him by instead releasing his delegates and recommending they throw their support behind Merwin, who then secures the nomination.


Uncredited (in order of appearance)

Character names are not indicated in the on-screen credits. The closing credits feature film clips depicting the faces and names of cast members Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Edie Adams, Margaret Leighton, Shelley Berman, Lee Tracy, Ann Sothern, Gene Raymond, Kevin McCarthy and John Henry Faulk.

Tracy received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor nomination for repeating the role of Hockstader that he had originated on stage. Faulk was a Texas-based radio personality who was blacklisted during the 1950s and won a lawsuit that helped restore his reputation.[2] Kevin McCarthy was a cousin of Eugene McCarthy, who became a presidential contender in 1968.


Bosley Crowther's review of the film in The New York Times cited William R. Ebersol in the role of Governor John Merwin as one of those who "stand out in a cast that is notable for its authenticity."[3] It was Ebersol's only film and he does not speak.

See also


  1. Vidal, Gore, "United States: Essays 1952-1992," p. 852.
  2. Goodman, William (August 1, 1990). "He Wouldn't Cooperate, And He Finally Won". The New York Times. Retrieved November 7, 2016.
  3. Crowther, Bosley (April 7, 1964). "The Screen: Gore Vidal's 'Best Man':Stage Play Adaptation Opens at 2 Theaters". The New York Times. Retrieved February 2, 2011.
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